Monday, July 15, 2013

We Should Be Angry About Zimmerman

This week, it is shameful to be a Floridian.

The danger in the Zimmerman verdict is not merely that a man was allowed to walk free after shooting and killing a young boy. That in itself is horrific. But his acquittal reinforces a dangerous and life-threatening narrative: that a young, black, hoodie-wearing teenager is a legitimate threat. 

This narrative is what led to Trayvon's death in the first place. In Zimmerman's eyes, Trayvon fit the profile of a criminal, thus leading to an encounter between the two in which Trayvon was shot and killed.

Had Zimmerman been convicted of the crime he actually committed, this narrative would have been broken. Blacks and whites alike could mourn the untimely death of a young boy and begin to undo an ancient fear paradigm that casts hoodie-wearing black youth as criminals.

But the jury ruled differently. It affirmed and reinforced the existing narrative. Merely by labeling Zimmerman "innocent" and Trayvon Martin as a "threat," the jury eliminated the potential for a paradigm shift.

It doesn't end there, though. We need to be angry. We must accept the ruling of the jury, but we cannot accept what it implies. Start conversations. Change minds. If Trayvon's death sparks a national shift in attitudes against black youth, then he did not die in vain. But it starts with us.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

ADHD: The Affliction of the Millennials

The New York Times in March 2013 reported that a staggering 6.4 million American children between the ages of 4 and 17 suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. If this number doesn’t shock you, it should. According to the article, that translates to one in five high-school aged boys in the United States; and this number has increased 41 percent in the past decade.

I studied ADHD when I was working on my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Florida Atlantic University. It is a disorder, typically manifested in early childhood, that is characterized by inattention, lack of focus and distraction.

Students affected by ADHD struggle to concentrate on classwork, so the initial signs are often picked up by the student’s teacher and then brought to the attention of the parents.

Most anybody can point to a family member or a close friend who has the disorder; it has become as ubiquitous as the common cold. For me, it was my younger sister. From an early age, she struggled to concentrate in school, was easily distracted and performed poorly in her classes; not because she was an inadequate student, but because she couldn’t stay focused.

What my sister lacked in focus, though, she made up for in sheer determination. She attacked her studies and turned her grades around, transforming her disorder from a disability into a minor inconvenience. She graduated from high school last week with the class of 2013, and I could not be more excited or proud. 

ADHD is a crippling disorder-- no doubt about that-- and can magnify the everyday challenges of an average student. I watched my sister struggle with it for her entire life. 

Still, there is a piece missing to this puzzle. As I mentioned before, student cases of ADHD have risen by 41 percent in the past decade. Why is the prevalence of ADHD so much higher today than it was ten years ago? Why are so many more students being diagnosed with the disorder? 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a manual detailing every known psychiatric and mental disorder. The newest version of the DSM, projected to be released in 2013, is expected to include an updated definition of ADHD with less stringent parameters for diagnosis.

While the updated version of the DSM will contain the most current research and information available on the subject, I would suggest reading it with a grain of salt. The manual is not as black-and-white as it should be, and is often the subject of zeitgeist rather than empiricism. Until the 70s, the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. The listing was amended when a rapidly shifting social climate overpowered the myopic perspectives of its authors, but the fact remains: the medical field is inevitably coupled with the attitude of its culture. 

I do not believe that ADHD is 41 percent more prevalent today than it was a decade ago; rather, I think that the widespread rise in ADHD is more indicative of the American zeitgeist than a biological phenomenon. While students like my sister truly struggle with the disorder, more and more children are misdiagnosed with ADHD as doctors attempt to explain a widespread attention deficit that is endemic to the culture of the millennial generation. 

For the first time in history, children are growing up in a world saturated with digital technology and instant information. The advent of the smartphone industry in particular highlights the underlying needs of our generation: we want information and we want it now. 

The challenge of the millennial generation is no longer to develop knowledge, but rather to discern the relevant from the irrelevant. Log on to any website and you’ll see countless advertisements, videos, and images lining the page. We have come to accept this inundation of information as a way of life, and, thus, made space for the proliferation of the privacy economy-- an economy where we provide personal information in exchange for free services.

We give an e-mail address for a music download; we provide information to marketers for a social profile. And, at every turn, we are paid in due with e-mails, ads, videos, and commercials all screaming for attention, for allegiance, for money. 

No wonder our kids can’t focus. 

Dr. Michael J. Breus suggests that children and adults diagnosed with ADHD might actually be experiencing symptoms of sleep disorder, and attributes disrupted sleep cycles to the “nonstop, perpetually wired, always ‘on’ culture we live in today.” He argues that we can realign our sleep schedule by unplugging ourselves from the digital world and creating quiet, dark, “gadget-free sanctuaries” to facilitate the body’s natural sleeping process.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn Wedge compares the prevalence of ADHD internationally, citing a 9% diagnosis rate in the United States against a .5% rate in France. If there was ever evidence of a cultural trend, this would be it. Dr. Wedge suggests that this gap is the result of mismanaged priorities in pediatric medicine. While American doctors look for the easiest “pharmacological bandaids with which to mask symptoms,” the French target the root causes of the child’s symptoms. It is often easier to diagnosis an inattentive child with ADHD and write a prescription for Ritalin than it is to examine any environmental or personality factors that might result in similar symptoms. 

Our chemical culture wants the easy answer, a simple prescription to reduce the deleterious behavior. We see a problem, and we want an easy fix. While this practice may provide the short-term solution that we seek, it is far more harmful to our society in the long run. We continue to overmedicate and numb ourselves to the real problems, providing the space to let them grow. I have a friend who refuses to take pain medicine when she has a headache because she believes pain is a sign that her body needs to rest and recover; ignoring this warning could cause more overall stress and lead to sickness or more pain.

Rather than seek a pharmacological bandaid, I think we need to realign our priorities and pursue the underlying root of attention deficit in early childhood. If, as Dr. Breus suggests, ADHD shares common symptoms with sleep disorder, it might be time to focus on a more natural solution to the problem. 

Ritalin and Adderall are effective drugs insofar as they keep the mind focused and assist with concentration. But they do not address the underlying issues that face a majority of today’s youth: disruption by digital technology and information overload. It’s time to ditch the prescriptions and seek a more permanent solution to the ADHD problem. Our children need to unplug. They need to come offline, step outdoors, read a book, or go for a hike. Most of all, they need to get some rest.

Our problem isn’t that 41% more children have ADHD today than they did ten years ago; our problem is that we have developed an ADHD culture. The millennial generation must learn to unplug and relax if we ever want to accomplish anything of lasting value.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

In Times of Crisis, We Cling to Fear

Tragedy can bring out the best and the worst in humanity. 

I, along with the rest of the country, watched closely as events unfolded after the Boston marathon bombing this Monday. 

Having spent much of my developing years in a post-9/11 world (I was 10 years old when the attacks happened), I am all too familiar with the panic and fear that immediately follow a national tragedy. I was homeschooled in the fall of 2001 and spent the morning of September 11th in front of the television; I saw the second plane hit the south tower and can remember with untainted clarity the images of billowing smoke and panicked bystanders. I remember the dazed confusion that followed as a broken nation attempted to piece together a picture of who and why

When the Boston bombing took place on Monday, a nation collectively returned to the horror of September 11th in a somnambulism of post-traumatic panic. The comforting silos built up after years of war, of increased TSA security at airports and the confidence in a protective government came tumbling down as we realized that no government is omniscient and some things do slip through the cracks.

Old wounds were re-opened and a scared nation, desperate for answers, demanded once again to know who and why

In times of crisis it is not uncommon to jump to conclusions or make baseless accusations grounded in fear. We want to know answers and the sooner we can figure out who did it, the sooner we can write them off and go back to our normal lives. There is a comfort that comes with knowing who the enemy is. 

But in the days following the Boston attacks, I witnessed such a present and dangerous prejudice that, despite lying dormant in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, was all too ready to re-emerge in the face of tragedy. 

Even before authorities started using the phrase Act of Terror to describe the bombings, the mass public, fueled by groupthink and encouraged by the accessibility of instant-- yet adulterated-- information, was quick to accuse. 

This is about the time that the rumors started leaking through the press. Fox News and The New York Post reported a Saudi “person of interest” held under guard by the Boston Police Department at a hospital. This same individual-- himself a victim of the attack-- had been tackled by a bystander who, seeing a Middle Eastern man running away from the scene of the crime, could not escape a panicked post-9/11 fear paradigm and jumped to conclusions.

This fear paradigm was not limited to bystanders. The New York Post published a cover story shortly after the bombings featuring the image of a Moroccan-American high school student under the title “Bag Men.” This 17-year-old student, who had attended the marathon like every other Bostonian to celebrate and encourage the runners, soon found himself the victim of cyber-stalking. His name was circulated online and within moments the twitter and reddit communities were discussing his history, his place of employment and the fact that he liked The Hunger Games

The most shameful story, in my opinion, is the report that two Middle Eastern men were removed from a flight after concerned passengers overheard them speaking Arabic. The flight-- a Boston to Chicago route-- was carrying a number of Boston marathon runners. 

To be fair, our nation had just been attacked and, in the three days following the marathon bombings, law enforcement officers had still not produced a suspect name or profile. A vigilant nation was on guard against a terrorist that it knew was at large. Yet the rumors and suspects that a panicked nation provides in times of crisis are revealing: the fact that most of the accused were Middle Eastern is the manifestation of a dormant post-9/11 fear paradigm that has come to inform our experience of terrorism. 

Even now, as one suspect has been killed and the other arrested, press outlets continue to discuss the Tsarnaev brothers’ Islamic roots as if religious radicalism is the only valid motive for violence.

Only time will tell the true motives of the Boston bombers; until then, we need to let the news develop and, for the sake of recognizing our common humanity, consciously work against the panic-driven narrative we so desperately cling to in times of crisis. Islam is the world’s most prevalent religion and terrorism is no more representative of our Muslim brothers and sisters as the Westboro Baptist Church is a reflection of Christianity. 

Let the lesson from the Boston bombings, rather, be not the prejudice and marginalization of a post-9/11 fear paradigm, but instead the display of camaraderie and spirit manifested by a nation recovering from a devastating attack. Remember the heroes who continued running to the hospital after finishing the marathon to donate blood for the bombing victims. Remember our nation’s leaders who set aside partisanship to support the President in a time of crisis. Remember the crowd at a Boston Bruins game that overpowered Rene Rancourt and shook the stadium during the “National Anthem.” 

These stories of empathy and solidarity display the true potential of humanity to veer towards compassion-- rather than hate-- in times of crisis. Let us cling to love rather than fear and lend a helping hand when our brothers and sisters need it the most.